Year A –The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 15)

Commentary for August 14, 2011
Click here for today’s readings

Genesis 45:1-15
It’s an ongoing theological dilemma, of sorts; just how much “blame” or “credit” should we assign to God for the stuff that happens in our lives?

 In a strictly predestinarian manner of speaking, there are some who say that “everything that happens is for a purpose — it’s the will of God.” This leads to some pretty twisty interpretations of God and God’s will in the case of, say, a baby born addicted to crack thanks to her mother’s poor choices.

On the other hand, there are some who say that “God gives us free choice and has nothing to do with the consequences we bring on ourselves.” This makes God the ultimate absentee landlord, with very little influence over the created order.

Joseph certainly makes an intriguing case for some level of involvement by God in the affairs of his life; he maintains that God was at work in the long-ago choice by his brothers to rid themselves of the pesky, arrogant dreamer by selling him into slavery. “God sent me before you to preserve life.” Not only his own life, we might add, nor simply the lives of his family members…but the lives of countless thousands (or perhaps millions) by his influence over Pharaoh and the affairs of Egyptian government.

So, exactly where does the providence of God lie in the affairs of humanity — those who are people of faith and those who are not?

Psalm 133
This psalm supports the theme of “family reunion” in the Genesis reading; “how pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity.” The two main images are of profusion and abundance — it’s a BIG blessing when barriers to relationship are removed and unity is restored.

The image of anointing with so much oil that it would run all the way down the beard and flow onto Aaron’s robe is something like a baptism. This is no mere dabbling of sweetly-scented oil. It is poured out and flowing! 

Similarly, the “dew of Hermon” was supposedly legendary for its ability to water the earth. Mt. Hermon is the highest point in eastern Palestine; according to Henry Maundrell, Anglican clergyman and Oxford academic who wrote a series of travel diaries in the 18th century, “with this dew, even in dry weather, our tents were as wet as if it had rained all night.” (Read more about Rev. Maundrell here)

Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
Just who, exactly, is welcome in God’s family? According to the prophet, the list includes “foreigners…outcasts of Israel…and all peoples” (goyim, Gentiles.) A thought worth remembering as many of our churches continue to struggle with who is welcome. And who is not.

Psalm 67
The repeated chorus, “Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you,” is not only a beautiful piece of worship liturgy, it is a fitting reinforcement of the theme that God’s work in the world is for all the people of the world — not just God’s chosen people.

Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
We’re all in the same boat, so to speak: “For God has imprisoned us all in disobedience so that God may be merciful to all.” 

Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28
Boy, oh, boy…talk about who’s in and who’s out! After discussing the original case of “trash talking” with his disciples, Jesus apparently demeans a double-outsider — a WOMAN from SIDONIA. She is the wrong gender to receive the respectful attention of the rabbi, and she is definitely from the wrong side of the tracks. Who exactly did she think she was that Jesus should grant her request?

She was a lot like us, actually. As Dr. Chilton discusses in the sermon below, she was a “hard case.” Perhaps it was she who needed conversion on this day…or, perhaps, it was the crowd watching and listening that needed to be converted from their prejudice and tiny belief system. Whichever the case, by the end of the story we all come to understand that what God is up to in redeeming the world is always bigger, broader and deeper than we can imagine.

Imagine that!

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In today’s Gospel lesson we find Jesus behaving in what looks like a totally unchristlike manner.  There is no way to see  what Jesus said to the woman about taking the children’s food and throwing it to the dogs as anything other than insulting and demeaning to her; both as a woman and as a Canaanite.

And, insult aside, we gentiles have a hard time reconciling the understanding we have of Jesus as Savior of the world with Matthew’s quote that he came only to the lost sheep of Israel.

So we pastors and Bible teachers have turned to a series of “explanations” that get Jesus off the hook:

1) There are those who see this as an acted out parable.  That Jesus was just saying what he knew his followers thought and he wanted them to see how bad it sounded so he could then correct it.  This is the “He didn’t really mean it,” explanation.

2) Some say that this is an inauthentic saying, words put into his mouth by the early church and the Gospel writer and the key to our understanding is to decide why the early church would tell such a story of Jesus.  This is the “He didn’t really say it,” explanation.

3) Others say Jesus was not referring to her as a dog but was simply using an old saying or a village proverb.  Does anyone get offended when we “The early bird gets the worm,” is used in such a way that they are obviously the worm?  This is the “We don’t really get it,” explanation. 

And now that I’ve set it up, you can all look at me expectantly and think, “Okay pastor, which is it?” 

And here’s the thing, I really don’t know.

Did Jesus have an authentic conversion here, one that extended his mission beyond the Israel to all the world?  We don’t know.

Did Jesus already know that his mission extended beyond Israel to the Gentiles and this encounter was a brilliantly ad-libbed teachable moment? I don’t know.

But there is one important thing we can know; as a result of this encounter and this text the mission of Jesus is irreversibly defined as going beyond the boundaries of Israel.

However it is that he got there, the end result is that from this moment forward there could be no question the Kingdom of God included everybody.

And, whether or not Jesus himself had a conversion experience around this issue, this text as it stands certainly makes it appear that he did.

And because of this, it is important that we consider our own lives and see if there are places where conversions are necessary in our own understanding of the wideness of God’s mercy.

One of the key differences in American Christianity is the divide between the conversionists and “raised in the faith folk.”  On one side are those who insist on a conversion experience, a moment of “getting saved.”  On the other are those who believe that we can be raised as Christian, growing and maturing in the faith.

Sometimes we can get a little too strident in theological defense of our tradition’s position on this, becoming what former Senator Alan Cranston called “rigid as a fire poker without the occasional warmth.”(Time, August 8, 2011, p. 64)

And like those who take hard line political stands, we can fail to learn what others have to teach us.  I’ve been asked many times, “Brother, are you saved.”  Somehow the answer, “I’m a Lutheran pastor,” doesn’t seem to satisfy the questioners. 

I have shied away from talking about conversion, but I have decided to learn something from my conversionist friends.  I think conversion, recognizing the way God has called and changed me, is important to the growth of my faith.

So my new answer to that question is, “Yes, many times.”  As I look back on it now, I realize my life has been a series of conversions, of times when my preconceptions about the nature of God have been dashed upon the rock of God’s word of hope and promise to all peoples.

And out of those collisions a new me and new direction in my life have emerged.

I think I count as my first conversion a conversion from the thoughtless racism of the rural south in which I was raised, in an incident that is simply too embarrassing and shaming for me to tell except to say that when I was in high school I hurt a friend very, very deeply and in the process learned the depths of the evil of which I was capable and also learned that only God’s love and forgiveness and power of reconciliation could make it right and it did.

Since that day in 1969 I have had many conversions about liberals and conservatives and communists and tea partiers and men and women and yankees and intellectuals and rednecks and homosexuals and, and, and. . . .

Every time I have come to a place where I think I’m okay, God opens up another area in which I am limiting God’s love and mercy and grace to people like me.

And one more time I have to go through the process of being broken down and rebuilt through the power of God’s love and redemptive power.

Not too long ago I bought a pair of clip-on sunglasses to wear in the car.  For two weeks I fretted and fussed with those sunglasses because they just didn’t fit tight.  Finally I took a good look at things and discovered it wasn’t the clip-ons that were crooked, it was my glasses.

It’s like that with the Word of God in our lives.  We continually try to bend God’s word to the shape of our lives, and we continually find it to be an uneven fit.

The salvific moment, the moment we begin to be saved, to be converted, is when we reverse the process and begin to bend out lives to the shape of God’s word.

The gospel calls us to a radical kingdom of inclusivity, a kingdom that includes everyone, including hard-case disciples like us.

Amen and amen.

2 thoughts on “Year A –The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 15)

  1. I hardly ever comment, but I always read, Delmer. And I sometimes borrow đŸ™‚ I just had to tell you how much I especially loved this sermon, and especially your line about bending our lives to the shape of God's word. You are such a blessing to me.

  2. That one line, "bending our lives to the shape of God's word," says it all about the life of discipleship. At Christmas, we offer a jazz program called "Bending toward the light." Same message.You always manage to articulate the Gospel with a few, well chosen words. Thanks much.

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